What is Business Ethics?
The concept has come to mean various things to various people, but generally it’s coming to know what it right or wrong in the workplace and doing what’s right — this is in regard to effects of products/services and in relationships with stakeholders. Wallace and Pekel explain that attention to business ethics is critical during times of fundamental change — times much like those faced now by businesses, both nonprofit or for-profit. In times of fundamental change, values that were previously taken for granted are now strongly questioned. Many of these values are no longer followed. Consequently, there is no clear moral compass to guide leaders through complex dilemmas about what is right or wrong. Attention to ethics in the workplace sensitizes leaders and staff to how they should act. Perhaps most important, attention to ethics in the workplaces helps ensure that when leaders and managers are struggling in times of crises and confusion, they retain a strong moral compass. However, attention to business ethics provides numerous other benefits, as well (these benefits are listed later in this document).
Note that many people react that business ethics, with its continuing attention to “doing the right thing,” only asserts the obvious (“be good,” “don’t lie,” etc.), and so these people don’t take business ethics seriously. For many of us, these principles of the obvious can go right out the door during times of stress. Consequently, business ethics can be strong preventative medicine.
Managing Ethics in the Workplace
Managing Ethics Programs in the Workplace
Organizations can manage ethics in their workplaces by establishing an ethics management program. Brian Schrag, Executive Secretary of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, clarifies. “Typically, ethics programs convey corporate values, often using codes and policies to guide decisions and behavior, and can include extensive training and evaluating, depending on the organization. They provide guidance in ethical dilemmas.” Rarely are two programs alike.
“All organizations have ethics programs, but most do not know that they do,” wrote business ethics professor Stephen Brenner in the Journal of Business Ethics (1992, V11, pp. 391-399). “A corporate ethics program is made up of values, policies and activities which impact the propriety of organization behaviors.”
Bob Dunn, President and CEO of San Francisco-based Business for Social Responsibility, adds: “Balancing competing values and reconciling them is a basic purpose of an ethics management program. Business people need more practical tools and information to understand their values and how to manage them.” (Extracted from Complete (Practical) Guide to Managing Ethics in the Workplace.)
Developing Codes of Ethics
According to Wallace, “A credo generally describes the highest values to which the company aspires to operate. It contains the `thou shalts.’ A code of ethics specifies the ethical rules of operation. It’s the `thou shalt nots.” In the latter 1980s, The Conference Board, a leading business membership organization, found that 76% of corporations surveyed had codes of ethics.
Some business ethicists disagree that codes have any value. Usually they explain that too much focus is put on the codes themselves, and that codes themselves are not influential in managing ethics in the workplace. Many ethicists note that it’s the developing and continuing dialogue around the code’s values that is most important. (Extracted from Complete (Practical) Guide to Managing Ethics in the Workplace.)
Resolving Ethical Dilemmas and Making Ethical Decisions
Perhaps too often, business ethics is portrayed as a matter of resolving conflicts in which one option appears to be the clear choice. For example, case studies are often presented in which an employee is faced with whether or not to lie, steal, cheat, abuse another, break terms of a contract, etc. However, ethical dilemmas faced by managers are often more real-to-life and highly complex with no clear guidelines, whether in law or often in religion.
As noted earlier in this document, Doug Wallace, Twin Cities-based consultant, explains that one knows when they have a significant ethical conflict when there is presence of a) significant value conflicts among differing interests, b) real alternatives that are equality justifiable, and c) significant consequences on “stakeholders” in the situation. An ethical dilemma exists when one is faced with having to make a choice among these alternatives.
The ethics program is essentially useless unless all staff members are trained about what it is, how it works and their roles in it. The nature of the system may invite suspicion if not handled openly and honestly. In addition, no matter how fair and up-to-date is a set of policies, the legal system will often interpret employee behavior (rather than written policies) as de facto policy. Therefore, all staff must be aware of and act in full accordance with policies and procedures (this is true, whether policies and procedures are for ethics programs or personnel management). This full accordance requires training about policies and procedures.